How Lahiri’s “The Lowland” excites discussion
by Rob Neufeld
When an American woman in Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, “The Lowland,” realizes how she has, in her mind, objectified a certain childhood horror, she flashes to her Calcutta grandma, who “used to spend her days overlooking a lowland, a pair of ponds.”
The symbolic image surfaces on page 259, referring to its origin on page 198, which in turn relates to a climactic event that haunts people throughout the book, and harks back to the novel’s opening landscape, and, of course, its title.
There are two ways to enjoy a book: one, for its rush; and two, for its lasting effect. The ways aren’t exclusive; you can have both. For the second kind of enjoyment, an author has to create a symphony, and leave you, as Lahiri does, with things to ponder and admire.
See the world
Novels such as “The Lowland” make great book discussion picks, whereas genre thrillers don’t. I once led a book discussion on a murder mystery, and was not very excited by questions such as “When did you know who’d done it?”
(There are exceptions to the nix on detective novel picks. If you’re a mystery novel writer, studying such books is fascinating. Plus, there are some mysteries that dwell on psychology, the execution of a crime, or a gothic setting in ways that get marvelously murky.)
At a recent book discussion on “The Lowland,” one reader called it “one of the finest books I’ve ever read,” and said she “felt a loss when it ended.”
There are many reasons for such a response.
First, a personal connection; stories that affirm the power of human kindness toward others are transformative. They go up against the pessimism and cynicism that possess societies, and demonstrate one of the reasons that the humanities—are you listening, cynical politicians?—are so important.
Good and bad passivity
Subhash Mitra, one of the two brothers we meet at the beginning of “The Lowland,” is someone whom one discussion member thought too passive; and another, just the opposite—heroic.
If we are going to be moved by a story, the hero’s kindness has to have its dark side. The difference of opinion about Subhash’s passivity stems from his being plot-changing in his decisiveness at times; and, at other times, timid when direct communication seems to be the thing that would avoid tragedy.
Are we like him? Is passivity heroic sometimes? How much do we fool ourselves?
It’s difficult to give examples from the book without revealing plot spoilers. I look to the book flap to see what the publisher gives away, and it’s the first 50 pages, so let’s go there.
“East of the Tolly Club, after Deshapran Sashmal Road splits in two, there is a small mosque,” the novel begins. “A turn leads to a quiet enclave. A warren of narrow lanes and modest middle-class homes.”
Lahiri is admitting us to a landscape. The place names announce that it is foreign. The mention of the mosque begins to make us aware that we are in Calcutta, near Bangladesh, in a place where class, religion, and colonial politics have been volatile.
“Once, within this enclave,” the story continues, elegiacally, “There were two ponds, oblong, side by side. Behind them was a lowland spanning a few acres. After the monsoon the ponds would rise so that the embankment built between them could not be seen.”
To the residents of this claustrophobic neighborhood by the wetland, the setting is probably as commonplace as a lawn chair. But to us readers, it’s already seeming mythological, like the recollected home territory of our childhoods.
Speaking of childhoods, we soon meet boy-aged Subhash and his younger brother Udayan. They’re stepping through puddles on the way to play soccer.
“Certain creatures,” Lahiri notes about the local wildlife, “laid eggs that were able to endure the dry season. Others survived by burying themselves in mud, simulating death, waiting for the return of rain.”
Why is she mentioning this? Because there are metaphors and foreshadowings cropping up here like key incidents at a wedding. Lahiri is constantly tuned into nature; and, as novelist Andrea Barrett once told me about her work, the metaphors come out of the story material; the story is not at all generated by metaphors.
Very soon in “The Lowland,” Subhash and Udayan are climbing a fence to trespass on the property of the exclusive Tolly Club, a combination golf course and wildlife habitat. They get caught by a policeman, who lashes Subhash’s legs even though Udayan says he was the instigator.
They walk to the nearby movie studio, from which beautiful actresses emerge.
“Udayan was the one brave enough to ask them for autographs,” Lahiri writes. “He was blind to self-constraints, like an animal incapable of perceiving certain colors. But Subhash strove to minimize his existence, as other animals merged with bark or blades of grass.”
After pursuing studies in science, the brothers get caught up in the current of the times, and Udayan becomes a member of the Naxalite movement, a key chapter in Indian history that the novel brings to light.
One of the riddling, momentous questions that arises from this part of the story is: Why do idealistic and justice-seeking movements so often fail? Another question is: What are the legacies that are passed to the survivors of such conflicts?
This brings us to Gauri, the woman whom Udayan marries, and one of the bearers of the legacy. She is perhaps the most conflicted personality in the book; and she generated a lot of talk at the book discussion.
Lahiri gambled with Gauri’s portrayal. Getting inside Gauri’s head was, for much of the book, like getting inside the head of a rabbit frozen in the teeth of a wolf—until the wolf is revealed as a nightmare, the details and nature of the nightmare become clear, and the teeth release.
“The Lowland” by Jhumpa Lahiri (Knopf, 2013) is now available in a trade paperback edition.
Other upcoming book discussions in the region include:
“Boomtown” by Thomas Wolfe at the Thomas Wolfe Memorial, 52 North Market Street, Asheville, 5:30 p.m., June 11 (253-8304).
Burning Bright by Ron Rash at West Asheville Library, 942 Haywood Road, 3 p.m., June 13 (250-4750).
The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon at South Buncombe/Skyland Library, 260 Overlook Road, 2:30 p.m., June 18 (250-6488).
Subtle Bodies by Norman Rush at Watauga Public Library, 140 Queen St., Boone, 1:30 p.m., June 22 (264-8784).
Bullfight by Isushi Inoue at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café, 55 Haywood St., Asheville, 7 p.m., June 25 (254-6734).
Redeployment by Phil Klay at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café, 55 Haywood St., Asheville, 7 p.m., July 1 (254-6734).